Friday, September 12, 2014

All The Light

I just finished Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See. It's a best seller right now; the internet and critics have been raving about it. Doerr is coming to my town next week to speak about it. 

I'm trying to feel excited. 

Let me attempt to explain. 

One of the main characters in the book goes from visually impaired to totally blind at age six. Sounds just a bit familiar (my six-year-old daughter lost the last of her sight last week). 

The trouble is, the blind girl in the book uses almost all of the usual tropes and stereotypes. She counts steps; she needs a sighted savior to teach her everything and raise her from her depression and despair; she is a docile perfect childlike disabled person who saves the other main character from himself by her purity... You get where I'm going with this?

(The six-year-old blind kid I happen to know went bike riding yesterday, fought with her brother, threw a fit about something, fed the cats, and got bored when Daddy tried to hold and comfort her, insisting she needed to get down and go play video games.)

I read a Twitter conversation before I ever read this book, between several blind people about the blind characters that are generally found in literature (and movies, although I already wrote a separate post about that). The idea of counting steps was discussed, along with the frustration that comes up so often in these conversations, that blind characters are never realistic:

@hehesighties: Authors, if you're going to write blind characters, DON'T have them always counting steps. Dead giveaway that you haven't a clue.

@lillieboo323: @hehesighties @optomouscryme Does anyone even do the whole step counting thing anyway? Wher'd the notion of that even come from.

@simon818: @HeheSighties @Jen1293 Or constantly being guided around by someone because obviously they're incapable of anything on their own.

@jen1293: @Simon818 @HeheSighties I have yet to find a literary portrayal of a blind character that I actually like and that is realistic.

@tuukkao: @Simon818 @HeheSighties Actually, I believe many of us are doing subconsciously just that if we haven't got any other landmarks.

@simon818: @tuukkao @HeheSighties I really don't remember the last time I counted steps anywhere.

@tuukkao: @Simon818 @HeheSighties Neither do I. My point was that it might be happening without us even realising it.

@tuukkao: @Simon818 @HeheSighties I believe it's one of the tiny pieces of information we subconsciously use to find our way around.

@simon818: @tuukkao @HeheSighties It's an approximation at best though. I think the only time that might happen for me is in really huge open spaces.

@FreakyFwoof: @Simon818 @tuukkao @HeheSighties Nope, not my thing. Never do it. I walk differently depending on where I am or how I'm feeling anyway.

@simon818: @FreakyFwoof @tuukkao @HeheSighties I'm pretty tall and usually speedwalking along so fast I don't even have time to count.

@tuukkao: @Simon818 @FreakyFwoof @HeheSighties That's not the point. We're talking conscious counting here, and that's something not many of us do.

@tuukkao: @Simon818 @FreakyFwoof @HeheSighties What I meant was something like an invisible counter clicking with each step you make, similarly to how you notice your surroundings change or 

...react how the surface changes under your feet. It's information related to the distance we've walked, not necessarily the number of steps we've made.


Back to the blog post. I enjoyed Doerr's novel, to a point. But the fact that he used so many stereotypes for his blind character made me question the authenticity of the rest of his imagery and narrations. 

I feel disappointed, I think. I wanted to like the book. I wanted to buy into the carefully crafted story. I wanted to like the cast of characters. I just couldn't do it. 

I know too much. 

It's too close to home, and too much damage is done when people take those invented mis-facts as truth. If everyone who read the book said to themselves, "This author has no more experience with blindness than I do, and he most likely made up his details after walking around his house blindfolded for a while," I would feel a lot better. I think it's more likely that people will see a book meticulously researched in its war details, and assume that the blindness stuff is accurate too. Ah, well. 

Literature throughout history has painted blind folks as superhuman or subhuman: the seer or the beggar. Never just human.  With that, Doerr is in good company. 

To give him credit, he did try. [spoiler alert] He didn't leave her virginal and dependent. She has a family and career. She does help in the war effort. That's something at least. 

For now, I'll take what I can get. 

Still, did he have to make her always counting steps?

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